NY chief retires after 36 years in fire service

Hornell Fire Chief Dan Smith recalled fond memories as well as the trials of working at the fire station for 36 years


By Jason Jordan
The Evening Tribune

HORNELL, N.Y. — Today, a revered public servant will answer the call of duty for the last time, to take a well deserved retirement.

Hornell Fire Chief Dan Smith's last official day on active payroll will be on Jan. 10, but between now and then, he will use remaining vacation time and effectively hand the job over to former Captain Frank Brzozowski.

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Before his departure however, Smith sat down with The Spectator to recall fond memories as well as the trials of working at the fire station for 36 years. He spent nine years as a firefighter, 16 as captain, and the last 11.5 as the chief.

Prior to getting the job as firefighter at the age of 23, Smith served in the Marine Corps. Following discharge, he was working for a local moving company, and wanted a job where he could help people. He took the test on the suggestion of his parents and soon embarked on a year-long process to become a firefighter.

"I got home from moving one day, and my mom said Chief Melenbacher had called," he said. "He called me in for a meeting, and said — Can you be in Buffalo by Monday?"

Following three months of training, he returned to start the job. His first fire, a large blaze in Canisteo, was a memorable one.

"In those days we still rode on the back step of the truck. It was in the middle of January. I still remember holding on to that truck in the cold, breaking over the knoll and seeing the column of smoke," he recalled. "I knew we were going to have our hands full."

The Hornell Fire Department of 1982 isn't the same as it is now, with a major focus on firefighting as opposed to ambulance service, and a style of mentorship that reflected the times. Firehouse hijinx, mixed with a camaraderie that could only be formed in the heat of a burning building, led to what Smith described as a bond "similar to the one he knew in the Marine Corps," with a little more personal nuance to it.

"Being here, the older guys were tough on you, but it started me on a good path," he said. "It's a different feeling, because you live with these guys, go to fires with them. It's just a different kind of bond and it changed my whole life. Coming to work in a firehouse every day for 36 years is different. It's a job to love."

To be expected, Smith's long career was filled with emotional highs and lows that accompanied lives saved, and those for which firefighters were just a little too late to save. A mass casualty fire on Summer Street in the early 1990s was particularly jarring.

"We tried every door and window we could, and we just kept getting pushed back. There's been big fires, accidents and deaths along the way. Each one shapes you and how you view the job," he said. "It hits you, especially calls dealing with kids."

However, the rough calls are often balanced out by the many positive outcomes the department takes great pride in. Securing a suicidal man threatening to jump from a bridge, pulling people from swollen rivers and creeks, and saving lives during tragic car accidents were among some of the many highlights.

Some of the better outcomes have been due to changes in technology, that allow firefighters to penetrate deeper into structures and save lives at the scene, and others to a training focused program assured that firefighting skills didn't lag at the department as ambulance services demanded more time and attention.

"Our guys skill is second to none. I've always said that, and I'll continue to say it. They truly care about the people no matter what their situation," he said.

When Smith took the job as chief 11.5 years ago, Smith lost some of the excitement of working active scenes and making decisions the way a captain would.

"Captain to me was the best job in the world, you get to make the calls and shape how you respond to it," he said. "Fighting fires is a great feeling. You get to go after it, and the mindset is to just GET IT OUT," he described.

For a short time before announcing his retirement, the chief even considered taking a demotion to become a captain again.

However, the administrative duties that came with being chief, also allowed him to shape the department for future generations of firefighters — a task he took to heart.

"At the end of the day, you have to do the right thing for your guys, for the city and for the people. It's all a balancing act," Smith said.

No matter his role in the department over the past 36 years, above all, a care for the community was at the heart of Smith's drive as chief at the department. In his parting words, Smith said that he hopes firefighters embrace the adversity of each situation.

"Don't shy away, embrace it. The more you deal with it, the better you get at dealing with it, the better your composure and decision making, and better decisions give you better outcomes," he advised.

During times good and bad, Smith credits his family, wife Sharon and children Ryan, Aryn and Lauryn, for providing the support necessary for such a long and distinguished career.

"I could not have done this without them," he said.

At the end of the day today, the Chief will hand off his pager and ride off into the sunset, where family, games of golf and fishing await.

Copyright 2018 The Evening Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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